(From chapter 8 of The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, trans. William Weaver)
“A romance,” Saint-Savin explained to him, “must always have at its base a misconception — of a person, action, place, time, circumstance — and from that fundamental misconception episodic misconceptions must arise, developments, digressions, and finally unexpected and pleasant recognitions. By misconception I mean things like a living person’s reported death, or one person being killed in place of another, or a misconception of quantity, as when a woman believes her lover dead and marries another, or quality, when it is the judgment of the senses that errs, when someone who appears dead is then buried, while actually he is under the influence of a sleeping potion; or else a misconception of relation, when one man is wrongly believed the murderer of another; or of instrument, as when one man pretends to stab another using a weapon whose tip, while seeming to wound, does not pierce the throat but retracts into the sleeve, pressing a sponge soaked in blood… Not to mention forged letters, assumed voices, messages not delivered in time or delivered to the wrong place or into the wrong hands. And of these stratagems the most celebrated, but too common, is that involving the mistaking of one person for another…”
Translation is hard, and maybe impossible, but I still want to quibble with this one. The first two words in the Italian paragraph are “Il Romanzo” [sic], so I would have translated the paragraph above as “The novel” or “Any novel”, which is what a “romanzo” is to contemporary italians. Oh, well.
(The Italian word translated “misconception” is “equivoco”, by the way.)
This is Eco, so we probably shouldn’t be such naive readers as to assume that here we have Umberto Eco’s own view of what novels are. Still, we might. And we definitely do have the advice of Signor Saint-Savin, a Paris-educated seventeenth century sophisticate, and it’s interesting advice to contemplate.
I recall there being a similar passage somewhere deep in the Aubrey-Maturin books. I owe myself a re-read of those imminently, anyway; I’ll have to keep an eye out for the passage on novel-writing.